“You can have meaning or you can have rest but you can’t have both.” — Peter Matthiessen

As part of our mission-based advisory services, Preservation Long Island is pleased to support an ongoing effort to preserve a culturally and historically significant place in Sagaponack, where world-renowned author and Zen master Peter Matthiessen (1927–2014) lived for more than 60 years. The six-acre site features a tranquil landscape surrounding three late 19th/early 20th-century buildings, which he rehabilitated after purchasing the property in 1960 for use as a writing studio, family residence, and the first meeting place of the Ocean Zendo. Since his death in 2014, an exciting idea has emerged to establish a center at the site, where Peter’s lifelong passion for writing, environmental conservation, and Zen Buddhism will continue to inspire others.

Peter Matthiessen pictured above in 1989 at his writing studio in Sagaponack. Photo by Arnold Newman for Esquire. Author of thirty-five books and co-founder of The Paris Review, Matthiessen remains the only writer to have won the National Book Award for both fiction and non-fiction.

Our Preservation Director, Sarah Kautz, is working with a group that includes the Peconic Land Trust as well as Peter’s family, friends, and students to develop plans to acquire and preserve the site as the Peter Matthiessen Center, a new 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization with a mission to preserve and celebrate the literary and cultural history of Long Island’s East End. Among the group’s members are John Halsey (the president and founder of the Peconic Land Trust), Lillian Ball (an artist and environmental activist), Lee Carlson (an outdoorsman and writer), Bill Chaleff (an architect), and two of Peter’s children, Alex Matthiessen (the former “Hudson Riverkeeper”) and Rue Matthiessen (a writer).

Peter Matthiessen’s former residence. Photo by Dana Shaw for 27east.com.

In Men’s Lives: The Surfman and Baymen of the South Fork (1986), which tells the story of profound change experienced within Sagaponack’s fishing and farming community during the late 20th century, Matthiessen wrote about purchasing the site:

“I was offered a fine property in Sagaponack, part of a tract, still called Smith Corner, inhabited originally by the Richard (Bull) Smith who founded Smithtown after his eviction from Southampton. In 1960 the sudden rise in local land values had not started and the whole property—six acres, a large decrepit house, an outlying stable and small cottage—cost much less than just one of those overgrown acres would be worth today. The value of the property increased three times in the very first year that I owned it; since then, the selling off of the South Fork has become so frenzied that children of many local families, and the fisherman especially, can no longer afford to live where they were born.” (page 128)

Although he was more than wealthy enough to build a new residence, Matthiessen lived together with the property’s past, repairing the “large decrepit house,” reusing the “small cottage” as a studio, and converting the “outlying stable” into a zendo. These structures remain with us today, connecting the stories of Sagaponack’s old rural community with Peter’s and our own.

The following short by filmmaker Rebecca Dreyfus, from her recent work On Meditation (2016), features an incredible glimpse of the site with the late Peter Matthiessen, revealing the deep ties between his practice and sense of place.

 

In addition to raising awareness and support, there is a lot of work to do for the Peter Matthiessen Center to become a reality! The group’s first priority is to raise $95,000 in seed money to stabilize the existing buildings, form a 501(c)(3), and hire a consultant to begin fundraising to purchase the property. Volunteers are also needed to join the effort, especially those with experience in:

•Legal (real estate, not-for-profit formation)
•Fundraising (public, private, grants, major donors, etc.)
•Construction/Renovation/Preservation
•Marketing/PR
•Accounting/Finance
•Graphic Design

Peter Matthiessen Center Contact Information:

To make a tax-deductible contribution:
Kim Quarty, Peconic Land Trust: KQuarty@PeconicLandTrust.org

For outreach education or to volunteer:
Lillian Ball: lillianball@waterwash.org

For volunteers, press and other information:
Lee Carlson • lee@leecarlson.life

Please see the scanned brochure below for more about the Peter Matthiessen Center concept and advocacy campaign:

Blog by Sarah Kautz, Preservation Director, Preservation Long Island

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